Conscience is not for Conservatives

Book review of The Conservatives: A History by Robin Harris

Books History UK Politics

Does the Conservative Party have a heart, a soul, a conscience, or is it just a remarkably efficient machine for winning elections, with no pretensions to organic life? That is the central question posed by Lady Thatcher’s former speechwriter and special adviser Robin Harris, who has reinvented himself with excellent books on Talleyrand and Dubrovnik as a first-class historian. Soon after John Major led the Tories to their worst defeat since the days of the Duke of Wellington, three big histories of the party were published in quick succession, written by Robert Blake, Alan Clark and John Ramsden, but since then there has been little of significance. Robin Harris has now not merely updated the story to the present day, but has overhauled all three previous books, making this the standard work on the subject. It is also replete with historical analogies for the situation in which the party finds itself today.

This is an unashamedly intellectual history, as interested in the thinking behind Toryism as in its electoral consequences and political practice; it draws on the works of historians such as Maurice Cowling, J.C.D. Clark, John Barnes, Roger Scruton, Alistair Cooke, Keith Feiling, Richard Shannon, Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, Norman Gash and many others. It therefore accords space to conservative-minded thinkers such as Samuel Johnson, Keith Joseph, Michael Oakeshott and Enoch Powell that other histories have reserved for the pushier cabinet ministers of the past. The result is that we not only learn what the party did, how and when, but also why. Harris also avoids the obvious pitfall of turning his book into a general history of Britain. 

“In general,” the author states, “the Tories as a party have probably benefited from coalition, whereas the Liberals have not.” This has been because in the 60 years between the mid-1880s and 1945 Britain was consistently, with the exception of a mere decade or so, governed by a Conservative-led (or Conservative-dominated) coalition of one kind or another, while the Liberals were in overall decline despite their 1906 and 1910 election victories. It was Lord Salisbury-the central occupier of Harris’s pantheon-who drew the Liberal Unionists into the anti-Home Rule movement that allowed the British Empire to be ruled almost continually from 1885 to 1905 by the Conservatives in coalition with their Whig and Radical Unionist partners, led by Joseph Chamberlain. So close did that coalition become that not one but two sons of Joe Chamberlain-Austen and Neville-came to lead the Conservative Party in the 20th century. Consider the likelihood of Nick Clegg’s children leading the post-Cameron Tories and you’ll appreciate the splendour of Salisbury’s uniting legacy.

Alongside Salisbury, Harris admires Benjamin Disraeli as a great paladin of the party, and as “the greatest Leader of the Opposition, and the greatest weaver of the national legend”. Margaret Thatcher is the third member of Harris’s triumvirate of transcendental Tory leaders. Yet even these three could not give the party an organic existence, for the simple reason that it is profoundly un-Tory to want any political party to have one. When James Purnell resigned as Work and Pensions Secretary in June 2009 he wrote to Gordon Brown to say: “We both love the Labour Party. I have worked for it for 20 years and you far longer. We know we owe it everything and it owes us nothing,” and much more such guff besides. As Harris comments:

No Conservative politician at any stage of the party’s history would have written such a letter. No one has ever pretended to “love” the Conservative Party. It is doubtful that even the most sentimental backbench MP would have claimed to “owe” the party “everything”. Any serious Tory figure adopting such a pose would incur immediate ridicule. The Conservative Party exists, has always existed and can only exist to acquire and exercise power, albeit on a particular set of terms. It does not exist to be loved, hated or even respected. It is no better or worse than the people who combine to make it up. It is an institution with a purpose, not an organism with a soul.

That is why the party fits in so well with the habits and views of the generally un-ideological British people, and why it has been so phenomenally successful in winning and holding on to power over the centuries. “The link between the conservative mind and Conservative politics is indirect,” Harris rightly asserts, “and it stems from the conservative person’s attitude to change-namely that he or she is suspicious of it.” Yet one of the recurring themes of this book is how often a relatively small group of modernisers — often but not always progressive radicals — can capture the leadership of the party and lead it to places that the rank-and-file only ever fitfully want to go. 

The Peelites who repealed the Corn Laws, the Tory Democracy movement under Lord Randolph Churchill, the “YMCA” group of MPs in Stanley Baldwin’s day, the Tory Reform Committee of the late 1940s, the Thatcherite insurgents of the 1970s, and now the Cameroon modernisers have all been revolutionary minorities within the party, yet wielding influence — except the Tory Democracy movement, which was routed — much greater than their initial numbers seemed to warrant. The fact that each of them except the Thatcherites hailed from the centre-Left or Left also says much about the inherent centrism of the party, and the constant magnetic pull exerted by the centre ground on Tory politicians over the centuries. In that sense both the premierships of Lord Salisbury, in reaction to the Home Rule crises and Gladstonianism, and of Margaret Thatcher, in reaction to militant trade unionism and hyperinflation, are the glorious exceptions in Tory party history, rather than the rule.

“Party trouble is the abiding headache of coalition government,” states Harris, and if the testament of Tory party history is witness to anything it is that the Cameroons’ greatest danger today comes not from the Lib Dems, or even from the electorate, but from the 81 Tory MPs who recently voted for a referendum to take advantage of the present Euro-crisis. “Cabinet government is, in truth, always more of a theoretical than a practical concept,” believes Harris, but should the Cameroons cabal too much, or take their backbenchers for granted, or seem to over-appease the Lib Dems, nemesis can be waiting in the wings. My sense is that the Cameroons are very well aware of the tightrope every coalition must walk, and of the danger that all Tory leaders — barring Salisbury, Thatcher, Hague and Howard — have had to fear from the Right. (Of Iain Duncan Smith, Harris rightly states that he “was in receipt of a degree of publicly expressed contempt and disloyalty from his own people never previously shown towards a Tory party leader”.)

Although Harris writes from an overall Thatcherite perspective — Ted Heath is accused of making “tritely mendacious assertions” in his 1970 manifesto — he is very restrained in his criticism of today’s modernisers, who he believes dominate the upper echelons of the party but are not over-represented everywhere in it, especially at the grassroots level. He points out how David Cameron won a swing of 5.1 per cent against Labour in the 2010 election, the third largest since 1945, thereby gaining the party 97 seats. It was not enough, but it was a reminder of what a formidable vote-getting goliath Tony Blair had been in his day. This well-researched, highly readable and occasionally highly witty account should become the new standard history of the Tory Party, and required reading for all MPs, especially any tempted to believe that their party has a soul, let alone a conscience.